In 1916, Sarah Frazer Ellis established "not a large school but a sound and thorough one" to prepare young women for “the rigorous admission requirements of the Eastern women's colleges.” Despite the “ladylike” behavior expected of Ellis students, the curriculum included no classes in deportment or harpsichord. The students took courses in chemistry, physics, history, Latin, French, English, mathematics, and art history. The faculty checked on neatness, uniforms and desks were inspected every Friday afternoon. Girls who broke the rules were assessed demerits, and for punishment had to remain after school and copy the United States Constitution.
A native to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Miss Ellis was an alumna of Bryn Mawr College, where she learned to insist on sound academic objectives. When Dilworth Hall, a Pittsburgh college preparatory school for women closed, Miss Ellis decided to start a proprietary school of her own by taking over a small institution called Miss Shaw’s School. With three teachers and 41 students in K-12, the “Miss Ellis’ School” opened in rented quarters on 4860 Ellsworth Avenue. Miss Ellis and Miss Marie Craighead served as Headmistress and Assistant Headmistress for 25 years.
The Ellis tradition of senior privileges was established early. On the first day of school, Miss Ellis would throw open the front door at 4860 Ellsworth to the seniors. All others were consigned to the side entrance. The senior den on the third floor was off limits to other students. Seniors had permission to leave the school at lunch time and often walked to a nearby drug store.
Those 25 years proved to be a period of considerable and steady growth for the school. The property was purchased in 1933 and by 1939, enrollment had grown to more that 200 students, taught by a faculty of 27. Among her many accomplishments, Miss Ellis applied for and was granted charter accreditation from the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges in 1928. She took early steps to ensure the continuance of the school by incorporating it under a nonprofit charter and selling it to a self-perpetuating board of trustees in November 1929 as “The Ellis School”. That same year, Ellis merged with Miss Shearer’s School, and in 1933, absorbed Miss Simonson's School as well.
The Ellis Guild, a student organization that to this day coordinates charitable activities, was founded in 1938. In 1940, through the Guild, Ellis girls provided magazines and books to local hospitals, gave athletic gifts to Pittsburgh Boys’ Town, and contributed Christmas gifts to a community center for Appalachian children.
When Miss Ellis retired in 1941, she was succeeded by Miss Harriet Sheldon from 1941 to 1944, and then by Miss Marjorie L. Tilley from 1944 to 1955. Miss Ellis continued to have an active interest in Ellis, attending Board meetings, keeping abreast of its affairs (often being quoted in newspaper articles about Ellis), and returning for Founder’s Day honors, groundbreakings, and commencements.
The original facilities on Ellsworth Avenue eventually became cramped, and in 1947 the Ogden Edwards house, the Lazar house, and a vacant Lockhart property were purchased on Negley Ave. Enrollment increased to over 300 and by 1955, the year of Miss Tilley's retirement, there were temporary classrooms across the street at Third Presbyterian Church, Hunt Armory, and the East Liberty YWCA.
Under Miss Tilley, Ellis was not sectarian, and the student population became increasingly diversified. In 1951, Upper School girls wanted to improve their understanding of faiths other than their own. They formed Chi Eta Phi, a nondenominational religious organization, whose Greek letters stood for the first letters of the words Catholic, Hebrew, and Protestant. The club invited speakers from various churches also offered opportunities to exchange ideas. Within a few years, 100 girls had joined Chi Eta Phi.
Dr. Marion Hope Hamilton became headmistress in 1955 and immediately began searching for new property. The school ultimately purchased the 5.1-acre site at 6425 Fifth Avenue, where it remains today. This site was part of Charles and Thomas Arbuthnot’s estate. The groundbreaking ceremony took place in May 1958. There were two houses on the property; one was razed to make room for a new facility and the other house became the Lower School for the next 30 years.
The dedication of the Middle and Upper Schools buildings took place in November 1959. Enrollment was 383, with a faculty of 39. Ellis' high-quality education was becoming widely recognized. In 1961, the school was authorized to establish a chapter of the Cum Laude Society.
In 1962, at the age of 87, Miss Sara Frazer Ellis died peacefully in her home. With an impressive list of accomplishments to reflect on, The Ellis School looked ahead to the administration of Mrs. Helen Mason Moore, who became Headmistress that same year.
Much of the credit for The Ellis School’s institutional stability in the unrest of the 1960s can be attributed to Mrs. Moore, who served as headmistress until 1971. Her progressive innovations included creating department heads and consulting with them on important academic policies, allowing seniors to involve themselves with real-world learning through independent study and senior projects, bringing the world to the school for weekly assemblies and opening the school’s facilities to the community. The Pittsburgh Savoyards and many other groups spent several years in residence on the Ellis stage.
In 1969, the Trustees, responding to what Mrs. Moore called "the tidal wave of co-education which had swept over the colleges" and was affecting secondary schools, decided to look into its advisability for Ellis. In the fall of 1972, after considerable research, much discussion, and exchanges with Shady Side Academy about a merger, the Board of Trustees decided that Ellis would best meet its goals by remaining a single-sex school. Judith Cohen Callomon '54, retired Upper School Director and former Acting Head of School, recalled "when the decision was announced in assembly, the girls responded en masse in one of those ear-splitting, bench-thumping ovations. Women's liberation and a firm belief in those things for which Ellis stood were inherent in the applause."
Ellis’ balance of tradition and innovation attracted Miss Janet Jacobs, who succeeded Helen Moore in 1971. During her tenure, extracurricular activities, field trips, visiting speakers, artists, and authors took on increased importance. "We serve our students well, but we are learning to serve them even better," Miss Jacobs said in 1974, announcing a new Ellis dimension - May Mini-Courses for the Upper School, the first program of its kind in Pittsburgh. This "third semester" in the final weeks of the school year offered and continues to offer a curriculum of more than fifty academic and nonacademic courses. These Mini-Courses are taught by Ellis teachers, outside experts in various fields, and the occasional student.
In 1973, to meet the changing needs of parents, Ellis added an optional afternoon Kindergarten session. The full-day session was a quick success and within a few years, replaced the half-day Kindergarten entirely. In 1985, the School introduced an extended day care program for Lower School students, and shortly thereafter was expanded to include students from the Middle School. Girls enrolled in the program were occupied from 3:15 - 5:45 p.m. with a snack, indoor and outdoor activities, homework, music, and art. In 1990, to satisfy their needs for reliable, trustworthy, and competent child care, the Ellis faculty started the Fifth Avenue Family Child Care Center, located in the basement of Arbuthnot House. The Center, managed by the faculty, is a distinct and unique program in Pittsburgh. The Early Birds Program begins at 7:30 AM each day in Alumnae Hall.
Even while designing innovations, Miss Jacobs and the Board of Trustees knew there was work to be done on the existing facilities and program. In 1974, the Board approved plans for an addition to the Fine Arts Building that would add studio space and provide a new audio-visual room. That construction did not require special fundraising; however, the current facilities needed serious attention. With enrollment close to 400, classroom and library space was tight, team sports areas were inadequate, and parking was severely pinched. In 1975, Ellis embarked on an ambitious ten-year development program to address double-digit inflation and the need to meet the technological and social changes facing students.
The design and scheduling of Mini-Courses testified to the dedication and creativity of the Ellis faculty. Miss Jacobs and the Board of Trustees recognized the importance of intellectual stimulation and refreshment for teachers and in 1977, instituted the Experimental Intellectual Program (EIP) to provide funds for courses, conferences, curriculum planning, and travel. The School began to award one travel grant each year "to express appreciation for years of outstanding service and to provide a period of refreshment, and a change of scene to a faculty member with at least ten years of experience." In 1984, to honor its founder, the EIP was renamed the Janet Jacobs Enrichment Program (JEP).
By 1980, $3.5 million had been raised, resulting in an enlarged and renewed Babcock Library, grown from 4,000 to 33,000 volumes since, a new science wing, additional Middle School facilities, a mini-gym, remodeled fine arts rooms, and new playgrounds. In 1980, the second phase of the program, Development II, was launched to assure the continuing quality of an Ellis education. Development II aimed to maintain a low student-faculty ratio, keep faculty salaries competitive, increase population, and ensure the proper upkeep of the physical plant. In addition, it worked to boost the book value of the Ellis endowment from two to four million dollars and to increase Annual Giving. Spurred by a challenge grant, Annual Giving climbed to $175,000 by the end of the 1981-82 fiscal year, and two years later, the endowment passed four million dollars.
The long-range development plan culminated in its most exciting phase - building a new Lower School. Larger and more up-to-date facilities were needed to replace the Arbuthnot building and to secure funds for a new Lower School, the Endowment Campaign was launched. Construction was delayed due to lengthy negotiations with neighbors who feared the School might encroach on their residential neighborhood. That, combined with Miss Jacobs’ decision to retire in 1986 meant that the project she worked so diligently on would not be completed under her aegis.
Miss Ellen E. Fleming, Ellis' new Headmistress, arrived from Atlanta just in time to wade through the dust and debris of the site preparation. By October 1987, more than three million dollars had been pledged to the campaign, and construction began on a pay-as-you-go basis. The Alice S. Beckwith Building, with its own science lab, music room, and gym/activities room, was formally dedicated on April 15, 1988.
Arbuthnot House became an administrative center, with offices for the Head of School, Development, Alumnae Affairs, Admission, Business Manager, and space for a Lower School Library and Computer Room. In addition, money was raised to enhance the endowment, whose book value at the end of the 1987-88 school year had climbed to $5.3 million.
After four eventful years at Ellis, Ellen Fleming found herself drawn back to her native South and resigned as Head of School. Mrs. Helen Stevens Chinitz succeeded her and served for the 1990-91 school year. Following her resignation, Mrs. Frances A. Koch, at that time the Upper School Director, served as Interim Head of School for a year.
In 1992, a search committee selected Ms. Rebecca T. Upham as Head of School. Her administration saw sound fiscal management and the creation of Symposia, which brought speakers such as columnist and writer Anna Quindlen, astronaut Sally Ride, researcher Carol Gilligan, and author Mary Pipher to address standing-room-only crowds. The school was facing many changes, including a wireless laptop program in grades 8-12, a successful $9.7 million Capital Campaign, which contributed to the construction of the new Upper School Hillman Family Building, an increase in faculty endowment, a new Alumnae Hall, and a new athletic facility containing a regulation-sized gymnasium, climbing wall, and training center.
Ms. Upham departed at the end of the 2000-2001 academic year to become a Head of School in Boston, leaving Ellis in an admirably strong position as a leader in women’s education. Mrs. Judith Cohen Callomon, ‘54 took over as Acting Head of School for the 2001-2002 school year.
Upon completion of a highly competitive and comprehensive national search, Dr. Mary H. Grant, former Assistant Head and Upper School Director at The Springside School in Philadelphia, began her tenure as Head of School on July 1, 2002. In her first three years at Ellis, Dr. Grant addressed the school’s future with strategic thinking involving campus expansion, enrollment management, development, school identity, and a new institutional website among other areas of concern.
Dr. Grant announced her retirement in 2008 and a national search produced Mrs. A. Randol Benedict, the long-time Admissions Director at The Garrison Forest School in Maryland. Mrs. Benedict served as Head of School from July of 2009 to 2013. Prior to joining Ellis, Randie Benedict served 19 years as the Director of Admission and Financial Aid at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, Maryland, an all-girls boarding and day school, preschool to grade 12. Randie resigned as head of school in August 2013.
After serving as Interim Head of School from September to December 2013, Mrs. Robin Newham was named Head of The Ellis School by the School's Board of Trustees. She has been a member of the Ellis community since joining the faculty in 1981. She taught studio arts and art history from 1981 to 1998 and during that time she initiated the School's Advanced Placement (AP) Studio Art program, which remains one of the true hallmarks of excellence at Ellis. Mrs. Newham also served as Grade 9 Dean in 1997-1998 and was named Director of the Upper School in the 1998-1999 school year. Mrs. Newham also played an integral advisory role in the design of the Hillman Upper School Building, which was dedicated in September 2000.
In the fall of 2014, Ellis celebrated the grand opening a new state-of-the-art turf field. The new 72,600 square foot regulation-sized field is lined for soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse, and looks and feels like natural grass. The mix of turf and sand at Ellis was specifically chosen to minimize injury risk to young athletes. The field is a source of tremendous school pride, not just for athletes, but for every member of the community. Though sports are not required, 70% of Ellis Middle and Upper School students play a team sport. This is much higher than the national average of 40% for girls (Women’s Sports Foundation).
During the 2015-16 school year, renovation work was started on the Middle School classrooms and science labs, the Lower School pre-k classroom, and the Benjamin R. Fisher Gallery. The Ellis Gallery had a facelift thanks to the financial support and creative design work of trustees/alumnae Margot Pyle '52 and Colleen Daily Simonds '95.
As Ellis approaches 2016, the School prepares to celebrate 100 years of all-girls education in Pittsburgh. The Ellis School is looking forward to 100 more years of preparing, empowering, and inspiring each and every girl through an excellent education in an all-girls environment.